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When Efficiency is Not Available as a Go-To Argument

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The live free or die state isn’t so good to those who aren’t free, it turns out. Via Feministing, I found an article about overcrowding in women’s prisons in New Hampshire. It’s no longer surprising to read about the ridiculous rates of overcrowding — about 50% at the prison on which the article is focused — given the situations in California, New York, and many other states. The solution is not, it seems to me, to build more prisons to accommodate everyone, but rather to ask how the prisons got so damn crowded in the first place. It’s clear to me that a major problem is the war on (some classes of people and some) drugs, which is sending thousands of low-level offenders and people with addictions to jail while letting the drug trade continue unabated. In addition to simply leading to more people being incarcerated, the drug war also makes sure people stay that way. As part of drug war policies, judges often mandate sentences of treatment programs or jail. But the treatment programs they require either don’t exist or don’t have space. So it’s really no choice at all.

Case in point, from today’s article about New Hampshire:

[One inmate, Heather] Strong, who served three years in prison for embezzlement and credit card fraud, was paroled in March 2006. She got a job as a restaurant manager, but began abusing prescription pain pills again in October and landed back in prison in May.
Since then, she has been waiting to get into a substance abuse program. The first program she applied to turned her down because she had also been diagnosed with a mood disorder, she said.
Strong said it doesn’t make sense for the state to spend money to incarcerate her – about $30,000 per inmate each year – rather than help her get into a substance abuse program on the outside, where she could work while she got help.
“I’m being housed waiting for bed space in a program – I could do that from home,” she said.
People on the outside probably think, “Oh well, let them rot,” she said. But she said nobody benefits from a system that is costly and ineffective.
“We need legislation for more funding for programs,” she said. “There just is not enough. … That’s why there’s so many women sitting here just waiting to get out.”

So not only do drug war programs lead to prison overcrowding, which is bad for several reasons, including (but not limited to) public health, prison safety, and potential constitutional violations, but also, at the level of the users who most often fall victim to the drug war, it’s not even efficient. A treatment bed costs less than a prison bed. So efficiency isn’t a leg to stand on here. Why, then do we keep on with this wrongheaded program? Anyone who can offer something other than racism and vindictiveness is a step ahead of me….

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